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In conversation with Thomas Wharton (Part I)

It's Sunday morning. While my children are watching kids TV, I'm going through my correspondence with Thomas Wharton, a multi award winning New Mexico based artist. It's only been a week, but I already have so much information from our exchanges that I'm now having to decide how to structure this conversation because there is such a wealth of really great material and I don't want to leave anything out. I get the feeling that if we were to meet in person it might start as lunch and suddenly it would be dawn and we'd still be talking. That or more realistically he'd be crying out in despair: "Enough already, enough with the questions!" Apart from his obvious mastery, the thing that strikes me about Thomas is how organised and meticulous he is in terms of how he works - traits which run contrary to the romantic notion many have of the haphazard disheveled artist. Also he is fiercely intelligent - something that would be formidable were he not also so approachable. My questions (of which there were and continue to be many) are answered thoughtfully in incredible detail, and with the patience of a benevolent teacher. He has such vast experience and technical knowledge, and his willingness so share this in articulate (and often illustrated) detail goes against the grain of a lot of artists who like to keep their box of tricks to themselves. I feel like I've been invited inside of the Magic Castle and I'm terribly excited. I first saw Thomas's work in the RJD gallery in Sag Harbor, NY. You know in that way you stand in front of a piece and you think: How on earth did he do that? And look at those skin tones! And there is the way they are lit which makes me think of the Dutch artists, and the mood that they communicate. Soon, without even realising it, you find yourself almost nose up against the painting. His work draws you in in that way. Thomas's work can be seen on his website and can be purchased through the RJD gallery. This is Part I, Part II will follow.

Q: Thomas both of us have fairly media(ish) backgrounds - I worked as an art director and copy writer, and before that on publications as a graphic designer and a writer. I started learning how to paint at the start of 2014 and it's become something I'm rather passionate about although a constant struggle - as I imagine it's supposed to be.

I think that a background in media will wind up being a big help for you. Most art training is along technical lines with very little time spent on concept and/or ideation. Right now, I imagine you’re focusing on the technical, and that makes sense as there’s so much to learn—color, use of shape, learning to see objectively, paint handling, etc. This is a long road, there’s no way to shortcut it, but at the same time, as you go along, celebrate the victories you have, and never let yourself be discouraged, doubt your ability, and compare yourself to anyone.

I’ve made hundreds of bad paintings, but along the way a few good ones. I saved those and made actual notes about what went right and what I liked about them… that is where your style will evolve from. It’s funny that both my life obsessions, the piano and art, are disciplines that can never really be mastered, and that’s precisely what makes them so compelling to me… settle in for the ride and enjoy it as much as possible.

Q: Do you work from life or photos or both? How do you decide on a backdrop? It is something that I struggle with probably more than anything else. I don't want to be literal and paint in a whole lot of detail in the back, and like Sargent, I want the focus to be on my subject. But how do you do pull that off convincingly without it just looking like, well, maybe you don't do backgrounds? Or maybe it's a matter of having a portrait that is so enthralling that the eye doesn't need anything else to look at?

I’ve worked both ways and also in combination. The results are slightly different from each way. When I’ve worked from life, the painting winds up being an observation over time. The likeness is there, but the changing skin colors, hair length (sometimes even color), clothing have changed, and I usually “average” something for them. The advantage to all from life painting is that you get to spend time with the person and that can’t help but infuse the piece. The disadvantage is that fatigue sets in for the sitter. No matter how dedicated, their posture slumps, and boredom and fatigue appear. It’s very difficult to keep that out of the painting.

I usually work from a combination of life and photo if I can. The photo allows me to hold whatever pose I’ve decided on and the life sessions give me a chance to evaluate what I’m doing against the real thing.

For figure work like what you’ve seen at RJD, I always work from photos. No model can hold poses that interesting, and I really want to avoid anything that’s close to academic painting. For these works, I do a lot of preliminary work in Photoshop, sometimes grafting body parts together, but mainly I aim to get color relationships that I’ll enjoy painting.

I think backgrounds are the downfall of a lot of portrait painting. I try to do as little there as possible. Many portrait painters fill the background with things that tell the story of the person. But, for me, unless the person is known to the viewer, a portrait is a chance for the viewer to invent their own story… let the person’s eyes speak to them as they will.

Q: I also notice you studied music and I wondered how art came into the picture? How and when did you come to painting? Also, do you see parallels between playing an instrument and painting?

My major in school was piano, and it was a love for many years. At some point, around age 30, I came to know that it wasn’t a lifestyle for me. I had a great deal of trouble handling stage fright and the idea of traveling and being alone didn’t appeal to me. What I came to know is that any enterprise like that takes a constellation of well, and in some ways had something special to offer, but too many other elements of the constellation were missing. I haven’t played for over thirty years, but recently have begun to tinker with it again. I do miss it and loved to practice.

I was always able to draw. From age three or four, I could draw and loved to do it. Art was my childhood obsession, and I made my first oil painting when I was about six years old (a fish painting for my grandad’s office). So when I left music, finding my way into something related to art seemed the only real thing to do.

One thing I got from my music days though was discipline. A pianist practices every day, usually 6 to 8 hours, and that discipline has helped me my entire adult life.

Q: I also wanted to ask you something I ask every artist I meet: What do you do on days that you do not feel like painting? How do you work through that and keep creating?

This is somewhat related to the idea of discipline I just spoke of. I make sure I go to the studio and I start something. It also helps me to end the day with something specific to start with the next… So, for instance, I’ll realize at the end of a day that I need to move the eye a little to the left. The first thing I’ll do the next day is to look and see if I still feel that way, and if so, I start there. Once I start, I’m usually OK. In fact, I have a sign on my easel that reminds me of that.

I also find that the ritual of setting up my palette, laying out the colors, arranging my brushes, etc. helps aim my mind in the direction of painting. I count on inspiration coming from the act of doing it, and also keeping my eyes open for things that catch my interest in the world around me…

Q: In your recent work (life studies) your skin tones are incredible. As someone that is learning to paint myself, my obvious question would be, do you have a standard palette that you work from with this and then vary it in terms of the lighting and the person you are painting? Has there ever been a colour that you've discovered and been surprised by it in terms of how well it works with painting skin tones? Frank (Oriti) and I had a discussion about cerulean blue a while back.

I do have a standard palette and will include a picture so you can see it and how I arrange it. It is based on the palette that Nelson Shanks used. He was my major teacher when it comes to color… This is such a big topic!!!

First, let me say a few things about my personal views on color. It took me a while to develop them, but I feel comfortable now with stating what they are…

I don’t actually paint natural color in the way many artists do. I aim to create the impression of believable skin and at the same time a vivid sense of three dimensional space. Although I aim to create convincing skin, I like there to be a strong color impression. Color is emotion to me, much the same way that orchestration is in classical music. So, the color brings an intensity to the vividness of the image. Color is also useful for turning form, with stronger chroma coming forward and weaker as the form turns in space.

I think it’s important to have real color in the shadows. This is especially hard to learn to see because physically, our eyes see color less well in shadow or in the dark. But, a good sense of color in the shadows will enliven the image more that you can imagine.

Although it’s not related specifically to color…. edges and what happens in the edges, both color-wise, and value-wise will do a lot to make convincing form.

For many years, I used a somewhat limited palette with warm and cool versions of the chromatic colors and a few earth colors—Lead White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Red (warm red), Alizarin Crimson (cool red), Cobalt Blue (neural blue), Ultramarine Blue (red influenced blue), Viridian (blue influenced green), Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, and Ivory Black. The teacher who gave me this palette made almost all his flesh tones from Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and White. He would then “influence” this mixture depending on the color in the model… this is for caucasian skin, obviously.

I might add there… Study the artists you admire. See their work in person as much as you can. It sounds like you have a collection already, so use that as a start. See if you can mix the colors you see and notice what happens in the transitions. I’ve also copied a great many paintings (especially Vermeer, who I just love). I learned so much from Vermeer, especially about edges. I didn’t save most of them, but did keep “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”. In an odd turn of things, just before I moved from New York, that painting came for a few weeks to the Frick and I got to see it in person. Surprisingly, the copy I’d made was almost the exact size… it was such a treat to see the real thing!

Q: How do you choose your subject matter? What was your latest inspiration?

I paint (and draw) what catches my attention. People are endlessly fascinating to me… their faces, their bodies, how the body betrays their thoughts and feelings, how their lives are mapped on their faces. A few years ago, I realized that when I paint a portrait, at a certain point, I feel like I am able to see what they looked like as a child, especially in the eyes. Then the portrait is done.

But, in addition to people, I’m fascinated by the sea and water, and also the sky. Here in New Mexico, the sky is beyond belief… I may try to paint it someday soon.

Q: At what point did you feel ready to take that next step and start exhibiting and selling? I think there is a voice inside a lot of us that tells us our stuff is OK but we're still learning and it's not really up to scratch for selling. What's that point that you yourself know it's good and it's ready to go public?

I started showing gradually through juried shows and group shows that I was able to get into. It was very useful to see people react to my work… sometimes there were surprises, with people really liking something I was lukewarm about, and other times walking by a painting that I thought I’d really done something special with. In the end, I can’t always tell if I’ve done a good painting. However, I have learned that something that might make a good painting may not be something someone would buy and put on their wall to look at every day!

Before I approached the RJD Gallery, I wanted to make sure that I had a body of work that hung together and seemed to show a thread of thought. I also waited until I felt sure of my ability to understand what I was about as an artist and could talk about it.

I wouldn’t wait too long to go public, but start out easy. I think that pressure is something that can inhibit artists, especially as they start to show. Pressure will make you less willing to go to the studio and put yourself through it. One of the things I used to do was go to the gallery space where I had a painting and sit unobserved and watch who stopped by my work and how they tended to look at it. Somehow it helped me get to know what was communicating and what wasn’t.

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